This Strange Way of Dying: Stories of Magic, Desire & the Fantastic is the debut short story collection of Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and has been on my radar ever since I fell in love with "Them Ships," her contribution to the anthology We See A Different Frontier (2013). As the title implies, this is predominantly a fantasy rather than science fictional collection, the narratives thematically linked by their portrayals of complex women, their sense of dislocation, and their exploration of Mexican settings, history, and mythology. With stories set in the past, the present, and the future, This Strange Way of Dying reads as a poetic journey through time, showcasing Moreno-Garcia's talent for evocative brevity.
Which, in a collection that runs to fifteen stories over some 200 pages, is something of a pivotal quality. Moreno-Garcia has a knack for conveying setting and worldbuilding with a minimum of fuss, focusing instead on the emotional journeys of her characters. The first and last stories of the collection—respectively, "Scales as Pale as Moonlight" and "Snow"—center on the internal landscapes of their heroines, Laura and Emma, both of whom are disconnected from the world, though for very different reasons. Laura is staying with family, attempting to recover from two miscarriages and a stillbirth; Emma is a college student isolated in her dorm by bad weather. Laura hears the cry of the alicante, a feathered snake said to drink the milk of nursing mothers; Emma is physically isolated, a strange apocalypse creeping in at the edges of her world. Both stories are emotive, atmospheric, and highly personal, and while there's something slightly absurd to the giant penguins of "Snow," the imagined visual is less the point than the final, wistful line, which in some ways personifies the whole collection: "by the sea, she could glimpse tall towers carved out of ice; the secret place that she had sought her entire life" (p. 206).
Because as much as these are stories about women, magic, and Mexico, they are also about choices, and belonging; or, just as importantly, about the dreamy, everyday habit we make of disconnection when we feel we don't belong. In "Bed of Scorpions," Beatriz, a young woman, is pressured by her (possessive, abusive) brother, Ramon, to marry a rich, dying man for money. Beatriz's resignation—her disconnection—is clear throughout the story, evident not only in how she copes with her brother's predations, but in her identification with a pretty, worn-down, clockwork bird, which her would-be husband, Justiniano, gives her. The magical element here is introduced late in the piece, and while that feels a little jarring on one level, emotionally, it's a perfect fit. In the end, the weapon Beatriz uses against Ramon is narrative: she refuses his version of her life and their relationship, and instead invites herself into a new story, one that Justiniano originally tells her about himself.
Similarly, "Jaguar Woman" and "Nahuales"—the two stories which follow "Bed of Scorpions"—are also about women fighting back against abuse and objectification. In "Jaguar Woman," the title character has lost her jaguar-shape and been forced to serve a conquistador as a human woman; she remembers her true self when her captor brings her a mirror, and she realizes her eyes are not jaguar-eyes—a revelation which prompts her to break the mirror:
She tells him the mirror broke, an accident. He says he'll buy her a new one.
She doesn't want another mirror but he insists and she must accept in the way she must accept all things from him. There is no room for discussion . . . He speaks kindly, almost lovingly, but he jams words down her ears, sneaks fingers under her skirts, demands in whispers.
She cannot ask. She cannot plead. There is nothing left to barter with. (p. 62)
This is a brief exchange in a very short piece, but one made all the more powerful for it. Even beyond the obvious rejection of colonialism and its brutalities, the idea of someone who "demands in whispers," as the conquistador does, is inherently chilling, and captures perfectly a way of exercising power all the more insidious for being, by comparison to other methods, subtle. Similarly, in "Nahuales," our nameless female narrator must navigate a nightly walk home from the train station despite the presences of the titular nahuales—shapeshifting monsters who first appear as tough young men. For any woman who has ever had to navigate a dangerous neighborhood at night, or walked in fear of street harassment, the fantasy element is far from being the most frightening thing about this story; and yet it serves to highlight exactly the commonplace nature of such incidents, despite how monstrous—and how predatory—they clearly are.
"Maquech" and "Stories With Happy Endings"—respectively the second and third pieces in the collection—both address questions of class, change, and culture. Set against a backdrop of the schism between rich and poor, "Maquech" is a neat parable about the price of heritage, and how survival can force us to barter what ought not really be sold; or at least, not sold to certain buyers. Gerardo, an animal trader, has purchased a maquech brooch—a live beetle turned into a piece of jewellery—with the aim of selling it on to a wealthy customer, Arturo de la Vega. Gerardo needs the sale, but de la Vega appreciates neither what the maquech represents, nor the lengths Gerardo has gone to in order to make it presentable to him, and in the end, Gerardo is left feeling as though he has sold—and, indeed, lost—something more than just his beetle. By contrast, "Stories With Happy Endings" is more a lighthearted piece, dealing playfully with the idea of a journalist interviewing a vampire at a late-night restaurant, but even so, the sense of change conveyed is both funny and sharp, as shown in this exchange between the characters:
"You've lost the Transylvanian accent."
"I also pawned the coffin."
"I pawned the TV last summer."
"Got it back?"
"No. Only shit on it, anyway. I like to read."
"Stories about detectives who solve crimes," I said. "Stories with happy endings."
"I don't read."
"Nobody does anymore. That's why journalism doesn't pay."
We were two archaisms sharing a table and drinking coffee. The journalist and the vampire, both made irrelevant by a faster than fast life; smartphones, hundreds of TV channels on Cablevision, porn on demand and Wikipedia. Modernity was sharper than a stake and the moors had been drained to make way for condos. (p. 36)
Here as elsewhere, Moreno-Garcia's prose is both sparse and whimsical without being twee. It's a style that rewards rereading even as it encourages contemplation; though deceptively simple at first glance, her stories are holophrases: short works that successfully encode a great deal of meaning. Though I read the collection quickly, each piece nonetheless sank into me on some level, because despite the common thematic elements, these stories succeed in asking some uncommon questions.
In "The Dopplegangers"—a story about the heroine's difficult parents being replaced by functional, conformist copies—the narrative tension comes, not from the idea of duplicates or familial invasion, but the question of whether or not this is actually a good thing. We know the original parents aren't killed or brainwashed; they're simply replaced, edged out of their daughter's life by versions of themselves who are better equipped (by conventional measurements, anyway) to look after her. The originals are complex, messy people—not even necessarily bad parents, despite their obvious flaws. Should we feel unsettled at how easily the heroine accepts their replacements? Are we judging the originals too harshly? What matters more—that every member of the family is happy and well, free to pursue their ideal lives, or that they've been separated?
Questions about family—how and why it matters, being isolated within it—crop up again in "Bloodlines," which is one of my favorite pieces, introducing both a family and a premise that could easily sustain a longer narrative: a clan of female magic-workers dealing in curses, struggling to adapt an ancient trade to the modern economy while still maintaining—but also, of necessity, subverting—their traditions. It's the titular story, however, which really serves as the heart of the collection. A gorgeous story of love and promises, "This Strange Way of Dying" focuses on questions of death and transformation, a thematic interpretation which also appears in "Cemetery Man," "The Death Collector," and "Shade of the Ceiba Tree." Whether personified as an immortal lover, a revenant soldier, a connoisseur of historical demise, or an otherworldly deity demanding sacrifice—as occurs in all four stories, respectively—Moreno-Garcia's death is, like the Death of the Tarot, representative of change more than loss, and specifically of change authored through personal choice.
From the atmospheric, creepy tension of old cinema in "Flash Frame" to the friendly, philosophical mood of the more SFnal "Driving with Aliens in Tijuana," the stories in This Strange Way of Dying are both emotionally versatile and thematically consistent, and an overall pleasure to read. My only real complaint is that, despite the skill and subtlety of Moreno-Garcia's writing here, I felt somewhat as though she were pulling her punches, if only because "Them Ships"—the first story of hers I read—has set my mental bar for her output extraordinarily high. Even so, this was a collection that I thoroughly enjoyed, and which I've continued to think about ever since I finished the book. These are quiet, clever, contemplative stories, easy to read but rich in interpretation, and collectively serve as a coherent, skilled introduction to Moreno-Garcia's work—exactly what you want, in other words, from a debut collection. This Strange Way of Dying is a beautiful volume—the cover, too, is gorgeous—and one I'd heartily recommend.
Foz Meadows is a bipedal mammal with delusions of immortality and sometime fantasy writer. She blogs about tropes, pop culture, feminism, politics, and SFF at her website, Shattersnipe, and is a contributing writer for The Huffington Post. She is also the author of two YA urban fantasy novels, Solace & Grief and The Key to Starveldt.